Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dr. Fred Cutler: Understanding the Yes Vote in 2005

Dr. Fred Cutler is a professor at UBC and, as his research, had conducted a series of surveys in both BC and Ontario during the run-ups to their respective referendums on electoral reform. He published based on his findings. For me, Dr. Cutler's topic was the most interesting of the three speakers because it gave great insight into people's views and attitudes towards electoral reform, the Citizen's Assembly (CA), and what reasons factored into them deciding to vote Yes. Most importantly, his findings had real implications with respect to strategies that should be adopted by the Yes side during the upcoming campaign and the message we need to be getting out.

As background, he got some base-line information on people's attitudes about proportional representation (PR) and people in politics. With respect to PR, people surveyed largely were in favour of its general principles. They actually liked the idea of coalitions, the idea of greater choice, and disliked the artificial majorities produced by first-past-the-post (FPTP). However, they did have concerns about the possibility of government instability with PR. Surprisingly enough, they didn’t have much concern about the complexity of the electoral system. On their views on politicians and people in politics, I have to admit that my notes a re little hazy here; but I’ve got written down that “ordinary folks will trust and believe ordinary folks when expertise is not required” which I think is supposed to mean that they will tend to be more trusting of fellow citizens. However, the people polled believed that ordinary people can become experts over time.

Not surprisingly, when he first started surveying people in January ’05, only half of the people surveyed were aware of the CA and what they were all about. Even less (about 30%) were aware of an upcoming referendum, and even less that that (~20%) had a working knowledge of single transferable vote (BC-STV). As expected, awareness of the referendum and BC-STV ramped up in the months leading up to the referendum. Still, referendum awareness never got higher than 50-60%, knowledge of BC-STV remained even lower, and awareness of the CA only increased by a small amount (a few percent).

Nevertheless, people generally liked what they learned and the more they learned, the more likely they were to vote Yes for BC-STV, which is shown in the following slide (click to expand):

What’s apparent from the slide is that a key factor in getting BC-STV passed is ensuring that people are well educated about both the CA as well as BC-STV. Interestingly, Dr. Cutler did an ideal extrapolation, where he looked at what would happen in an ideal situation. He speculated that if an ideal situation were to occur where 100% of the population had a good working knowledge of both the CA and BC-STV, BC-STV would pass with 80% support.

Along that line of thought, Dr. Cutler investigated the question of how awareness of the CA influenced voters’ decision. He found that knowledge of the CA satisfied two kinds of citizen: the populist (who comprised 2/3 or the public), and the non-populist (the remaining 1/3).

Populists are kind of your “Ordinary Joe” type of citizen. They are generally skeptical of the so-called “elites” and their decisions and fall into the “ordinary folks trust ordinary folks” designation; knowledge of the CA was more important than the actual elements of the proposal. So for them, the message needed to emphasize the representative nature of the CA.

On the other hand, Non-populists were the opposite in that they tended to be more accepting of “elite” decisions; they needed to know that member of the CA became experts. Also, they needed to know more about the proposal itself. For them, the message needed to emphasize the expertise of the CA; however, knowing about how BC-STV worked was still twice as important.

Nice to know, but as Dr. Cutler pointed out, there’s no way of knowing if a person is a populist or non-populist; it’s not like you can ask a person. So basically, one needs to get both messages out simultaneously if one wants to cover one’s ass.

In terms of hard numbers, Dr. Cutler found that knowledge of specific aspects of the CA raised the yes vote by differing amounts. If people were told that CA “members wanted what’s best for BC”, the yes vote went up by 22.8%. if they knew that the CA “represented people like me”, +12.8%. if they knew that CA members “became experts”, +7.6%.

Dr. Cutler then went on to discuss why the yes vote only got 37% in the Ontario referendum. The public’s views on PR were no different than in BC, the CA in Ontario was set-up the exact same way in both provinces, and like BC-STV, the more people knew about Ontario’s Mixed Member Proportional system the more likely they were to vote for it. So what changed?

Apparently, the CA didn’t get the same level of publicity in the media so awareness of it didn’t have the same impact as it did here in BC. Also, there was more frustration in BC as compared to Ontario in light of recent election results, so there was a greater appetite for change.

So ideally, when talking about BC-STV, we would discuss the CA first, highlighting that they were ordinary citizen’s from across the province, that their goal was to do what was best for BC, that they became experts on electoral reform, and that their decision was nearly unanimous. But of course, ideal is hard to achieve. So the lesson that Dr. Cutler thought should be taken is that we ensure that British Columbians are as educated as much as possible about both the CA as well as BC-STV.

Back to Musings Mainpage

No comments: